Festival of Faith and Writing–Day 3

Sorry this is a day late, but reasons will be explained below.

Yesterday was the third and final day of the Festival and it was the only day I actually had to attend panels all day. The first thing I did was attend a panel on “The Tensions of Style and Voice” by prolific writer and Poet Laureate of North Dakota Larry Woiwode. Sounds like pretty heavy stuff, but it was really just him talking about how he injects his own personal voice into his writing and then there was a short Q&A. Pretty interesting stuff, overall.

After lunch, I went to a 2-person panel moderated by a Calvin English professor that involved television bloggers and editors Nikki Stafford and Jana Reiss. They discussed the rise of faith in modern television and what it’s like being on the cutting edge of television scholarship.

It was a great panel, but something that motivated me to speak up was that they almost exclusively focused on modern network and HBO dramas like Game of Thrones, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc. Don’t get me wrong, those are all fine shows, but I felt prompted to ask, “What about Community?”

Well, Stafford just lit up at that and I prompted her to talk about how great Community and Modern Familyare and how they’re leading us into a golden age of comedy. After the panel ended, I went up, talked to her, and we got along fine. She even agreed to let me email her some samples from this blog.

So that was exciting.

Then the last panel I went to, with a couple of friends, was on the joys of having a writing group to belong to. The interesting thing was, not only was the panel all women writers, they were also all pastors. Interesting viewpoint, that.

So that was the last panel I attended. After dinner, I killed time until 7:30 when I met up with my friends and we attended the final plenary, which featured critically lauded African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose talk was titled “The Magic and Craft of Fiction.” Despite starting 15 minutes late, it was still a very enjoyable talk.

The final highlight of the evening was going to the last event of the festival, a concert by independent folk musician Josh Garrels. 

I had never heard of him, but I got a ticket for free when I bought a ticket to see Bruce Cockburn. I thought, “Well, I don’t know who this guy is, and I don’t want to go alone,” so I paid $5 for another ticket and asked my friend Adri to go. She had never heard of him either but…this guy was good.

It’s been 24 hours, and I still can’t articulate just what kind of performer Garrels is. He sings with a distinctive Southern accent, but what he plays is not country music, but more like the explicitly Christian Bon Iver. It was a remarkable concert, and he is a remarkable performer.

After that, Adri and I went back to the basement of her dorm and watched the phenomenal anime Code Geass until around 2:30 in the morning. It was pretty awesome, and seeing as how I’m almost finished with the 2nd and so far final season of the show, so expect a full write-up soon.

And this concludes my coverage of the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing. I hope you liked me writing about it as much as I liked going to it.



Festival of Faith & Writing–Day 2

So yesterday was a rather great day, but today was even better. Because today, I got to meet with titans.

The first titan: Craig Thompson.


Thompson is a graphic novelist, and I mean that in the literal sense. He writes dense epics of incisive writing coupled with brilliant, gorgeous, lush artwork that evokes utterly human experience.

His main claims to fame are his 2003 autobiographical work Blankets and his 2011 foray into fiction, Habibi.

Blankets, a gorgeous, tragic coming-of-age story, is what broke Thompson through, winning him 3 Harvey Awards, 2 Eisner Awards–including, I learned today, the last Eisner ever personally awarded by Will Eisner himself–and 2 Ignatz Awards, but Habibi, nominated for 2 Eisner awards currently, has really catapulted him to fame, being positively reviewed by Time and other publications.

I attended 2 panels with him today–one that was half interview and half Q&A, another that was basically him explaining his creative process with a brief Q&A at the end–and an art gallery reception with a signing.

But it was at the start of all this that I think I’ll remember forever. I was sitting next to my friend Abby, who was assigned to be Thompson’s student escort, right up front in the lecture hall. Thompson–and I don’t know this was of his own volition or because my professor who interviewed him told him about me–came up to me, introduced himself, and we had a marvelous 10-15 minute discussion about comics and the comics world.

I told him about my paper on Carl Barks (again: more on him soon) and he was very interested in what I had to say. I will never, ever forget that.

Later, after getting in some good questions at both Q&A sessions, I went to the library and printed off a copy of my paper to give him at the art gallery reception, as well as a one-page comic I had written a while back for Transformers: Mosaic  and a list of webcomics I follow, because I had heard him say to someone that he needed to catch up on his webcomics. Don’t worry, these two were included.

I gave them to him at the art gallery, which had an exhibition of original pages from both Habibi and Blankets. The cool thing about the signing line is, he personally sketched in your book(s), personalized it to you, and let you talk to him while he was doing it.

He seemed really psyched when I gave him my paper, and genuinely pleased about the sample of my work and thrilled with the webcomics list I made him. He made the front page of my copy of Habibi even more beautiful than it already was.

Overall, Thompson is a remarkable creative force and a wonderful man who made me feel like loving comics is the best thing one can do. And that’s the best.

The second titan was this man:


That would be legendary folk/rock singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who performed a concert about 3 hours after I left Thompson’s signing table.

I didn’t know what to expect, really, not knowing that much about his music, but I was blown away. The reasons Cockburn is so venerated, especially in his native Canada, is because of his thoughtful lyrics, masterful guitar playing, and soaring vocals. All of these were in place tonight, despite the concert being rather late, at 9:00 at night, and with Cockburn being over middle-aged.

He was masterful in an all-acoustic setting, and I eagerly jumped in the signing line after the show.

Now, I should mention that earlier this week, I wrote a review of Cockburn’s classic 1979 album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, which I probably will post at some point. It was published in our school newspaper today and, having a copy at hand, I wanted to give it to him.

I approached the signing table, had him sign a flyer, told him how wonderful he was, and started to give him the review and explain about it.

“Oh,” he said, smiling at me. “I read that in the hotel this morning. (Calvin has a hotel, the Prince Conference Center, on its campus.) Great job!” he said.

I’m still trying to decide whether that–the fact that a musical icon liked my review of his work–or meeting and connecting with a superstar graphic novelist made my day the most. I like to think they both did.

Festival of Faith and Writing–Day 1

Every other year, my college, Calvin College, puts on a Festival of Faith and Writing, where writers from all areas of literature gather to discuss their work, attend Q&A’s. do signings, and talk in panels about how various aspects of faith influence their creative process.

Today was the first day of the festival and because I have a full class load on Thursdays and Tuesdays, I only got to go to a couple things. But they were great things!

The first was the opening plenary, held in Calvin’s Van Noord Arena to accommodate the crowds, where Calvin English professor and multiple-award-winning young adult novelist Gary D. Schmidt talked about why stories are important. It was a stirring, moving talk that made me just want to skip my final class and just get back to the various stories I’ve been working on now and again. Of course, I didn’t skip my class, but I will do that other thing. I might post one of those stories here. Maybe, when it’s finished.

The second and third things I did today both involve this man:


Unless you know your author photos really well, the man in the picture is Jonathan Safran Foer, the acclaimed novelist whose second book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, was turned into a film that was nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.

Foer, who is Jewish, gave a plenary talk in Van Noord tonight that was about how faith has influenced and bled into various aspects of his life, both as a writer and apart from it. It was a wonderful speech and will stick with me for a long time, but it’s what he did before that that will stick with me longer.

Earlier in the day, one of the professors in the English Department facilitated a Q&A between Foer and 20 students. I was one of them, and I asked the first question.

“There’s a lot of fragmentation in your work. In Extremely Loud, we read fragments instead of whole words or sentences and literally, in Tree of Codes (his latest book), you rearrange sentence fragments. Can you explain why that persists in your work?” I asked.

Foer answered politely that, while he didn’t mean to defer my question in any way or demean it, that he does so because we live in a fragmented society in part to today’s media. It was a very thoughtful answer, and he gave many more throughout the hour.

At another point, I brought up something I had heard about how Foer was writing an HBO pilot for Ben Stiller’s production company about a vegetarian man based on his nonfiction book Eating Animals. Foer IS writing an HBO pilot, but it’s not about that.

I went up to apologize to him for confusing projects and he said, “That’s OK, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Well, this is sure awkward, isn’t it?” I said.

“Nope,” he replied, smiling.

Later on, I met him in the signing line after his talk.

“Y’know, you, Michael Chabon, and Phillip Roth are the only Jewish writers I’ve knowingly read, but I think it’s your words that will stick with me the most,” I said.

“Thank you very much,” he replied. “It was so nice to meet you.”

Well, that made me happy indeed! And indeed, Foer’s words he said today will stick with me, but none more so than this gem he said at the Q&A:

“If we’re all going to die, then we should live as fully as possible.”–Jonathan Safran Foer

A Word About Honors…

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of presenting at the 6th Annual Grand Rapids Student Honors Conference a paper I had written about Disney comic great Carl Barks. (More on him soon.) It was a fun, exciting experience that left me feeling very gratified that others took joy in watching me present my research.

Then, tonight, I was invited to the Honors Convocation at my college because I made the Dean’s List. I went and while it wasn’t really an event for me so much as for the seniors who are graduating with honors in a month or so, but it was still a nice event.

Both these events were interesting to me because I’m not all that smart academically. I suck at math, foreign languages are hard, and, well, frankly, if it’s not interesting, I probably won’t do that good at it.

But to not only make Dean’s List my first year of college–something a few of my friends didn’t even do–but have my scholastic achievement acknowledged by being invited to present my research for a city-wide conference? That’s pretty great.


Unless you’ve been living under a cave for the last year or so, you’ve heard about Marvel Studios’ upcoming The Avengers, where the famous superhero team that’s not the X-Men makes their big-screen debut culminating the buildup from 6 other films outlining the origins of all the team members (except Hawkeye).

Anyway, as part of the buildup for the film, which opens May 4, HitFix writer and longtime Internet film critic Drew McWeeny has an interview with stars Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth about their characters. So enjoy.

Webcomics you should be reading: Part 1

I like webcomics. A lot of them. Today, I’ll talk about two of them. Both are by the same person, the mightily talented David Willis, and they’re pretty great.

First up, Shortpacked!


Shortpacked! is a workplace comic, in the vain of Dilbert. Like Dilbert, it’s rather contemporary, but unlike Dilbert, it’s about lowly retail employees instead of corporate workers. Shortpacked is the name of a toy store where all the characters work.

There’s Ethan, the former standup comic who makes it through the day by standing up to disgruntled fans as well as being an outspoken fan of Transformers and Batman; Amber, a good girl and parental abuse survivor who’s currently 7 months pregnant; Mike, Amber’s fiance and one of the biggest a**holes in comics, and Robin, the hyperactive former member of Congress who instigates all sorts of wacky adventures.

There’s also Galasso, their tyrannical boss with ambitions of being a world-conquering tyrant, Faz, an insanely creepy man, and Ultra-Car, a sentient talking car who manages the stockroom.

Shortpacked! is David Willis’ current progression in what’s been called the Walkyverse after his character David “Walky” Walkerton, who, while not present in this strip, was a main player in the other strips of the continuity, which include Roomies!, It’s Walky! and Joyce and Walky. He’s been doing webcomics since 1997 and while I haven’t read the previous strips, I’ve read every single strip of Shortpacked! and it is honestly brilliant.

Willis combines jokes making fun of geek culture, toy collecting, and current events with strong character-driven storylines. His art is cartoony, but in a very good, easy-on-the-eyes way, and his willingness to break the strip’s flow to appear as himself is admirable. Here’s the first strip if you’re interested.

Shortpacked! updates Monday-Friday in storyline weeks, and Monday-Wednesday-Friday on joke weeks.

While Willis has built an impressive continuity over the years with the Walkyverse, in 2010 he decided to go the alternate-universe route with Dumbing of Age.


Dumbing of Age is an all-storyline strip where various characters from the Walkyverse, including several from Shortpacked!, are all freshmen at Indiana University.

This strip is very female-focused, with the main character being Joyce, an earnest, naive homeschooled Christan fundamentalist who finds herself thrown into a world of partying, relationship drama, and co-ed showering.

Walky is a big player here, and he’s a funny slacker who just does enough to get by. Ethan, Mike, and Amber are all at IU after going to high school together. Robin is not here, being a full-time member of Congress in this strip, but her younger, promiscuous sister Roz has a pretty important role.

There’s also Joe (who–and I quote Willis’ character bios here–has only 4 years in which to “Joe” all the fine ladies at IU), Danny, his bumbling roommate, and Dorothy, his driven ex-girlfriend.

Dumbing of Age is all story, so it updates 5 days a week. Unlike Shortpacked!, this hasn’t been around that long, so you can get caught up fairly easily. It took me about 4 hours; Shortpacked! took me most of a week.

If I were to really recommend one of the two strips, I’d say Dumbing of Age. While Shortpacked! is very funny, DoA‘s strong characters and well-plotted storylines have hooked me.

There are about 4 print volumes of Shortpacked! out now (available here) and a book version of Dumbing of Age is planned soon, according to Willis. But for now, just catch them up on free and get exposed to one of the most original voices in all of webcomics.

Death Cab For Cutie/Low concert review

If there’s any singer that can sound the exact same live as he does in the recording studio, it’s Death cab For Cutie vocalist and guitarist Ben Gibbard. I learned this last night after seeing him and his bandmates live at the fine arts center on my school’s campus.

According to the program flyer, Death Cab played a show at my school exactly 10 years ago. I don’t know how much tickets cost then, but seeing as how Death Cab has exploded into superstardom since then, the price was $50 a ticket.

Steep, sure, but I didn’t care. That’s still pretty cheap for concert tickets, and seeing as how I’m actually in a position for the first time in my life where I can actually go to concerts, I took it! Besides, this show wasn’t just about me.

My younger sister had a birthday in February, and a while before that, when the tickets went on sale, I bought 2 for us  AND IT WAS SO WORTH IT!

First off, this wasn’t just Death Cab. Their opening act was the great indie band Low, who I’ve loved ever since hearing this song on a podcast. They played a 10-song set that just chilled everybody out while simultaneously wowing them.

Then the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a string group founded to back artists like John Vanderslice, took the stage. They recorded some backing tracks for Death Cab’s most recent album Codes & Keys, so the band reinterpreted a chunk of their catalog to fit the orchestra’s sound.

After they played a stirring instrumental, Ben Gibbard came out and, leaning on the piano, led them in a stirring rendition of the song “Passenger Seat.” The rest of the band came out and from there, it was simply a magic blend of rock band and orchestra.

My sister, who’s been to more shows than me, including Warped Tour, said she was surprised by how chilled out everyone was. Nobody even stood up out of their seats until they launched into their current hit, “You Are A Tourist.”

After about 20 or so songs, they left the stage, but the audience–us included–clapped and cheered for a solid 5 minutes. Then the band came out, and launching into a stripped-down version of the new song “Doors Unlocked And Open,” proceeded to play another 20 songs!

Overall, it was a great night and probably the best birthday gift I’ve ever given my sister. Plus, at the merch line, I got Death Cab baseball cards. BASEBALL CARDS!

I mean, how cool is that? When you add great music into that, you’ve got yourself a great night.